CT bar pro says bye to rock and rye with bourbon-based "Up n' Down"

Photo of Leeanne Griffin

Justin Morales knew he was on to something as the demand built for his barrel-aged Old Fashioneds. Thanks to modified liquor laws during the pandemic, the managing partner at Marlborough Tavern in Marlborough was able to offer to-go cocktails.

As his bottled drinks were “flying off the shelves,” at the restaurant, he said, he began thinking bigger. He’d seen distilleries pop up in Connecticut, producing craft spirits. Could he launch his recipe, or something similar to it as a retail product?

“I finally [decided] I want to do this on a larger scale, and whenever possible,” he said.

Morales, who has nearly three decades of experience in the bar industry, officially introduces his Up n’ Down rock and bourbon to the Connecticut market June 8. The product is a descendant of a rock and rye, a blend of citrus and rye whiskey sweetened with rock candy. Morales’ version uses bourbon, sweetened with honey and a touch of sugar, and flavored with elements like fig, orange zest and birch and cherrywood barks.

“It’s very complex, and simple at the same time,” Morales said. The 80-proof rock and bourbon, which he estimates will retail for about $35 to $40 at package stores, will be distributed in 750 ml bottles statewide by Brescome Barton.

Morales says he believes his product is the first rock and bourbon in the U.S. Rock and rye, which initially played a medicinal role in the 1870s as a cough remedy, hasn’t really become a mainstream product, he said. But he thinks using bourbon communicates the product more effectively to customers.

He partnered with Central CT Distillers of East Hartford, working quickly to bring the liquor to market as he predicted restaurants and bars would be busy again in spring and summer.

“I knew that restrictions were about to ease up, [and] bars were going to start taking on new product,” he said. “I knew it would be open season again for people that want to try something new and take a risk. I asked if we could do it by May, and they said probably June. And we did it.”

Served chilled with a large ice cube, orange twist and a cherry garnish, it’s a ready-to-drink Old Fashioned, Morales said. But he says it’s versatile, and he’s also used it in an espresso martini and a version of a mint julep, as well as in a bourbon sour.

“It kind of just covers the ground,” he said. “If you're a new bourbon person, it's a great way to get into this. But if you're experienced, you're going to taste all the other flavors.”

Morales says there’s been a lot of interest among other industry professionals who want to get his product into local bars and restaurants. His roots and connections in the state have helped, and he’s also part of the Hospitality Collective, a group of Connecticut chefs, bar managers and other hospitality experts that plans special events and offers coaching, consulting and restaurant concept development.

“[People] know I’m not going to put out something that I don’t believe is quality,” he said. “I think my excitement helps them get excited and they've been great at supporting . The community itself has been awesome and supportive, and I'm grateful.”

Upcoming events featuring the rock and bourbon include a cocktail competition at The Charles in Wethersfield on June 8, followed by a tasting with featured cocktails and swag giveaway at Marlborough Tavern June 16 from 4 to 7 p.m. Visit savorupanddownbourbon.com or the product’s Instagram and Facebook pages (@SavorUpandDown) for more information.